She scanned the people in the pews and wondered what in the world Jesus was trying to teach her during this festive holiday season. When she took inventory of her life, it was mostly all good. God had blessed her with a kind husband, a sure marriage, provision--not too little and not too much, and strong, healthy children that made her marvel everyday. She was not for want of anything in this regard.
So why this feeling of void? Of loneliness?
Maybe those bitter feelings that would forever be left unresolved and that she was forever confessing to the Lord were rearing their ugly heads--demanding cultivation that she refused to give because she knew it would not be to the glory of God. Her parents had estranged themselves from her--one actively, one passively--but forsaken she was, and shy of the miracle of their rebirth, forsaken she would remain.
She hadn't spoken to her dad for two years but his last words to her had been, "You have a nice family, you're doing a good job." Oh, how she cherished the memory of those words! It was the first expression of praise he had afforded her since she made it known to him a decade earlier that she was to be baptized a Christian. Until that sweet moment of reassurance, his disappointment about her choices to have more than 2 children, raise and educate them at home and be a wife to her husband had been veiled by a polite silence, but occasionally the concern would show with statements like, "Maybe she's not done yet. Maybe she'll still do something." But mostly they filled the conversational void left between their expectations and her choices with praise and relish over her younger sister's accomplishments.
Younger sister--we'll call her Ann--was a college-educated elementary school teacher. But ironically, it was never the love of teaching or an interest in bettering young people that was the object of their talk--it was only and ever about Ann's ability to run a disciplined classroom. Her boast was that her students respected her with a healthy fear and that she didn't take any guff from them. A good and necessary start to any successful learning environment, to be sure, but not what the older sister remembered best about her own profoundly-impacting teachers.
Ann and her husband both held degrees in psychology and had a very different instruction manual by which they raised their children than did the older sister--we'll call her Michelle--and her husband who now turned to the Bible for their wisdom. With that in mind, Michelle packed for a long overdue trip to visit the family and readied herself to see a different style of parenting. Her experience with educated, secular parents over many years of neighborhood playgroups taught her that parents of that persuasion tended to explain and negotiate with their toddlers. It could be irritating to watch, but it was better than nothing--which was mostly what she found when she arrived at the family home that December.
When the sisters had spoken weeks earlier, Ann had wanted Michelle's youngest children to come for a sleepover at her house. She imagined that it would be grand fun like they, themselves, had enjoyed with their own cousins 30 years ago. But, ever the pragmatist, Michelle politely declined the invitation acknowledging that her 7 and 5 year old children had never been on an overnight away from their parents and that these cousins were still very young and didn't really know one another and that she didn't think that this rare opportunity to be with the grandparents was the right time to introduce such upheaval, but that she was really looking forward to visiting with her sister's family over an evening meal during their travel. Michelle hung up the phone with a sense of acceptance--it seemed as though she and her younger sister, Ann, had finally arrived at a place where they could respect each other.
But when Michelle arrived at the family home, she was surprised to find her niece on Grandpa's couch, burying her face in a pillow, too shy to greet the far-away branch of the family. The hosts placed their favorite granddaughter to sleep between her cousins in a queen-sized bed and it didn't take long for the differences in training and personality to divide the young girls. But with Ann not in attendance during the unwelcome sleep over, it was left to Michelle to do what she could to keep the peace. For the sake of Christ, she encouraged her own daughters to exercise grace and be meek in the face of broken confidences, humiliation and favoritism.
On the second day, the niece still stayed, and the social dynamics of The Lord of the Flies began to play themselves out. Michelle and her husband decided that these cousins needed an adult to supervise their play every minute, and since Ann and her husband weren't there for more than about an hour at dinner one evening, the responsibility fell largely upon them. By the third day, the effort was so fatiguing that the visitors made their excuses and left for the airport six hours early to spend the extra time hanging around fast food restaurants and airport gates.
Within a week after she got home, Michelle--who felt she had no voice in the midst of this family--unpacked her feelings and observations about her niece's need for Jesus on a blog post. It was a blog that no one in the family ever read, she felt certain. Her mother had read through it uninvited once upon a time, but had sworn off it nearly a year earlier out of respect--so said Michelle's aunt--her mother's older sister.
But the hearsay didn't hold, because the mother came back, found the stated facts offensive, and instead of calling Michelle with her complaint, made sure that everyone in the family who weren't ever going to see it, saw it.
When the offense was brought to her attention, Michelle removed the post and wrote a public apology, but it was too late. The damage was done and spread to the far reaches of the family.
For years, Michelle had burdened her husband with late night talks about what, if anything, she should do about the situation. What should she think about the situation? "Nothing." was the counsel of her wise husband. This wasn't about the blog post. This was about her Christianity.
And he was right. The disparity between the crime and its consequence was too great to make sense. This was about Jesus. This was about Michelle the Christian being called to choose The Savior above even her own blood ties as they were clearly choosing their antagonism toward Christ over their blood tie to her.
And that's what the Lord taught her this season as she sat in church on Christmas Eve, feeling inexplicably lonely surrounded by so very many people. She had been called to leave mother and father and sister to follow Christ, and not one other person in the room, to her knowledge, had had to do the same. Not really.
When she surveyed the room, she imagined that among these dedicated people were the ones who would be her friend, her sister, her mother, her father. From among these people, surely Jesus would give to her 100 fold, that which she had lost for His sake.
But not today. Today, the Body is largely weakened in its fellowship because the sword of separation has been dulled by the privilege of freedom and because the world outside the church likes to pat itself on the back and imagine that it still holds a high regard for tolerance--high enough to be accepting of Christians. But someday--by some circumstance--the Lord will sharpen His blade and strengthen His Bride.
Woe. And glory!